Battle of the Balance

Only in the past few years have I come to appreciate that I was born on the lucky side of life.  Not only do I have enough food, love and shelter but I have the ability of having experienced going on an aeroplane, visiting towns and countries beyond my home, obtaining a first class education and many, many other things which most in the world cannot even imagine.

A friend’s son is doing a project on Cambodia with his primary school class in Australia.  When the class learned that I live in Cambodia we tried to work out a meeting of some sort.  With various protections in place through the school, Skype and other meetings were not approved.  So the children’s teacher filmed each of them asking me a question about Cambodia which was then emailed to me.  For the past few weeks I have been working on a filmed response.

Some of the questions were far easier to answer than others.  Compare “what is the main form of transport?”, with “do you have fidget spinners in Cambodia?”!  One child will get a range of short clips showing motorbikes in their various forms of hard labour.  The other was more challenging but I managed it.  One of our doctors, who looks about 12 years old, was interested in the question and she went out and bought herself a fancy metal fidget spinner.  I filmed her responding to Ben’s question with “you asked if we have fidget spinners in Cambodia and yes, we do, and in fact I also own one <as she pulls it from her white coat pocket and spins it>, but to be truthful, I don’t really know what is the fun thing about this?”.  It’s cute.  But it is brief!  After a few days I came up with a solution.  Today I am going to Siem Reap to work on Project Rav (the tuk tuk website we are designing).  Yesterday I bought 4 cheap fidget spinners to give to Rav and Seth’s 4 boys.  Ben’s video will show the boys receiving / playing with their fidget spinners, with the message that these children have almost no toys so I bought them a fidget spinner each on your behalf.

Over the next few days in Siem Reap, as well as photographs for the website, I will be video-replying to the last few questions: “what are your houses made out of?”, “how many ruins are around your place?”, “how many rice paddy fields are around your place?” and “is most food imported or grown there?”.  All much easier to find relevant video footage of in a rural area, than in the city.

Last night I wandered around the busy market local to my home, taking video footage for the question “do you have supermarkets or do you have to go fetch your food?”.  Dying fish laid out on banana leaves streetside made their last few leaps of death beside rows of unpriced shoes.  A mother with two school boys on one moto pulled up at a vegetable stall and leaned out sideways to sort through the cucumbers and choose a few of the best, her sons both bored to tears and unaware I was watching them.  A woman with a large flat tray of food perched on her head and a small red stool hooked on her arm spotted me videoing her and stopped to pose for me.  A man with small twisted, twig legs sat on the ground, obviously placed there by someone who I wondered about (could they love him or could they be a pimp?) with a hat held out for donations, telling me that he comes from Prey Veng (a province bordering Vietnam).  A woman in pink pyjamas and a massive floppy brimmed sunhat poured fish cake batter onto a pan over an open fire burning inside a tin box attached to the side of her moto, at one of the many mobile takeaway joints.  Next to her a young woman in a wheelchair sat on the corner begging.  Motos crawled slowly through the sauntering crowds on this busy street which is really an al fresco drive-through supermarket.

Closing my $1000 iPad, the umpteenth moto-dup driver asked “Madame?”, hopeful of a fare.  I shook my head and the look of disappointment on his face suggested a stressful existence.  I walked over to the ATM, aware that the crowds all around me neither have bank accounts, nor anything to keep in an account.  Then I walked into a trendy, dim-lit bar to join a friend for drinks, aware also that the crowds outside neither know that this bar with it’s unassuming frontage exists, nor could afford to enter if they did.

The next few days will be spent with Rav and Seth, getting the final photographs for their website organised.  Yesterday Rav’s sister who lives in a $30/month rented room smaller than my bedroom with her mother and three small children, called me to say that she is in hospital with the 2yo (on a general ward) and 6mo (in ICU).  Our language barrier means that I remain unclear of what is wrong with either of them but the Kuntha Bopha Hospital offers free treatment which is less than adequate to western expectations, but more than she could otherwise afford.  Unable to offer any practical assistance, I sent some money instead, to help reduce her stress at being away from work (selling rice cakes wrapped in banana leaf at a local dust-tracked market) and unable to continue the daily loan repayments she must make to her loan shark.  When I told her I will be in Siem Reap for a few days she asked, was I going for work?  No, holiday.  Oh so lucky Helen.  Yes, I KNOW.  I really DO know.

Recently on a car trip to a work training session, our new translator asked me “have you ever been to Angkor Wat?”.  Without thinking I replied with an enthusiastic “Yes!  Many times!”.  An ensuing silence brought to mind Sam, my tuk tuk driver who has lived his whole life only 350km from Angkor Wat but has never been there.  Could Sam be the norm?  Can most Cambodians not afford to visit their nation’s most famous attraction?  I asked the translator, “have you been to Angkor Wat?”.  He paused and seemed to compose himself before giving an awkward “no”.  After another pause I said to him “I think most Cambodians cannot afford to go to Angkor Wat?”.  He nodded and I said, as much for my own sake as his because I never want to be a bombastic foreigner, “there are so many things that foreigners don’t understand”.  Again, he nodded in silence.  That day we visited his family home, a sprawling wooden shack in a square of mud surrounded by verdant rice fields which at this time of year, he spends his weekends ploughing.

On that note I now have to get showered, dressed and packed for a $40, 50-minute flight to Siem Reap.  Because that’s the life I was given.  There is no way to express my gratitude for this fact.  Except to share in some small way, what I have, with those who have-not; and to share some of what I know of their stories.


Miracles, Swallows and Amazons

Just over two years ago, during a boat cruise on Lake Windermere in north-west England, a small island in the lake captured my imagination when the guide described it as the place which had inspired Arthur Ransome’s children’s adventure series, Swallows and Amazons.  Tonight at a hotel in Siem Reap I turned on the television and correctly guessed the film as Swallows and Amazons, based on the English accents and unmistakable scenery.

Yesterday I woke with abdominal cramps and diarrhoea and had to call in sick.  Bed bound with frequent rushes to the toilet, by mid-morning something had taken its hold on me and I wasn’t sure whether to sit on or put my head inside the toilet bowl.  Either option was only a 50% solution.  Shivering cold and feeling like I might faint at any moment, I dragged myself into the main part of our apartment to let a Khmer colleague, working in the kitchen, know that things were not going well for me.  She followed me to my bed and as I flopped face down she said “Oh you have a lot of rain”.  Peering through one half-opened eye at her, I asked “rain?” and she motioned towards my head.  Sweat was raining off me!  She then suggested she should call the doctor.  Unable to imagine how anyone would get me off my bed let alone out of the apartment and into a tuk tuk to hospital, I replied “I have to stay here”.

I asked for a vomit bowl and she returned hastily, rubbing my back as I heaved spasms of clear water into the bowl.  The force of heaving caused a panicked rush to the toilet, with my colleague leading the way, holding the vomit bowl at my chin before passing it to me and leaving me to my devices.  Flopping back on my bed, she returned with a small pot of tiger balm which she proceeded to rub all over my abdomen.  Amazingly, it did help the nausea and drooping consciousness.

Within about half an hour whatever it was had expelled itself from my system so I must have looked fraudulent, propped up on pillows sipping water, when my housemate rushed through the door, stethoscope and thermometer in hand, on her emergency rescue mission!

Plans to travel to Siem Reap for a long weekend were not easily cancelled so I monitored myself all afternoon and determined by mid-evening that I would be safe to travel.  After a quick tuk tuk ride to the bus station I was horizontal on the cushioned floor of my own roomette on the Night Bus.  Eight hours of mostly-sleep later, we were pulling into Siem Reap.

International Children’s Day is a public holiday in Cambodia and I’d promised a lunch time swim at the hotel for Rav and Seth’s families.  Four very excited small boys arrived with two babies and four parents in tow.  The boutique hotel likely didn’t know what had hit them but we all need to be taken out of our comfort zones from time to time and a splashingly fun time was had as staff looked on wide-eyed at the commotion.  Tonight Seth, whose English is entirely self-taught, wrote:
Hello Helen how are for today now you get for dinner , and my family thank you also and very very happy swim and for lunch time, this is my first time for my family to swim pool thank you so much for today
It’s hard to imagine living in a resort town such as Siem Reap which must have hundreds of swimming pools at it’s hundreds of luxury and middle-range hotels and hostels, and never having been in a swimming pool.

The two hours-or-so of lunchtime excitement saw me nana napping this afternoon when my telephone woke me.  A Khmer friend in Kampong Cham who never calls, had also sent a private message on Messenger.  I clicked on the 12 minute video he shared to me, watching a small boy speak in Khmer to the camera with English subtitles, describing his dream to go to school and help his mother and younger siblings. Instead, he is forced to spend days and nights selling ripped banana sugar, ripped potato sugar and dry freshwater clams from a hand pulled cart in the streets, in order that the family can keep a roof over their heads.  At the end of the video I learned that he lives and works within a five minute walk of my workplace.  Not knowing this, the Kampong Cham friend had contact with what he called “a tycoon” in Kampong Cham who watched and was moved by the video, wanting to help the family.  My friend called me in hope I might be able to help locate the family.  As it turns out, I probably can!

So on International Children’s Day I reflect on my own childhood summers, spending hours everyday in New Zealand’s public swimming pools or crystal clear rivers and beaches.  Unaware of my childhood fortunes, I transitioned into an equally oblivious adulthood of visiting or living in places that most people may never even know exist but which I can frequently recognise on the privileged television channels I get to watch.  In comparison, two families splashed today in a pretty blue swimming pool for the first time in all of their lives.  Meanwhile a distressed family in Phnom Penh may be about to have a new lease on life thanks to an uncanny series of connections.

Abacus 03

Quick Cambodia Visit: Kim

So many things happened in my recent whirlwind 13 day visit to Cambodia, only 2 months before I return there to live and work.  There was no time to write about it while I was there and I barely know where to start now.  I’ll post a series of chapters covering most of what happened.

Kim sat across the table from me, under the whir of a ceiling fan suspended from the overhead timber beams of a tropical verandah skirting the edges of a restaurant in Siem Reap.  He ordered a Coca Cola on my tab as Rav sat down, refusing a drink but agreeing to translate.  I wasn’t going to use Rav for this conversation because I thought it could compromise their friendship.  Fully aware of the problem, Kim brought Rav along.  Rav has always translated for us, so that appeared to be Kim’s permission, although it may also have been his attempt to manipulate me away from having the expected and difficult conversation.  I told Rav “I need to talk to Kim because he told me he had no money for rent but then I found out his rent was already paid by someone”.  Rav turned to Kim and spoke.  Kim replied and Rav translated “He want to send his daughter to English school”.  Yes, I am sure but I am not here to talk about that, I am here to talk about the lie that he told me because I cannot help if he tells me lies and he said he needed money for rent when he didn’t”.  Rav translated this.  Kim looked at the table without replying.

He let me say my piece, which included understanding that he needs more than the small assistance I had reliably sent for 2.5 years, but when he lies I cannot trust him anymore and cannot help if I don’t trust him.  Sitting in silence, he offered no explanation or apology.  Rob, the other Australian involved in assisting Kim, was also in Siem Reap and I asked after him.  Kim replied that Rob had visited their home while Kim was out and left his number with his wife.  He gave me the number but later when I called, it was the wrong number.  I located Rob via PM on Facebook and he joined me under cover of another restaurant verandah during a tropical downpour.  We shared a drink and compared stories.  Rob has known Kim almost five years and knows his tricks.  He was not surprised that Kim denied having seen him, before producing photographs taken days earlier of them lunching together!

Kim’s life is unimaginably difficult.  Someone who has been so severely disabled since his youth and has relied on manipulating charity out of others in a place where he has no power or respect from many fellow humans, must have his reasons for trusting lies over honesty, to get what he needs.  Rob continues to support him, using strategies he can employ whilst living in the vicinity, such as paying the rent and keeping his wife fully informed so that she knows their budget.  I am not in the same position and also not prepared to engage further.   The final nail came for me when Rob told a story about paying Kim’s rent for a month, just before Kim contacted a friend of Rob’s in Australia to say he needed money for rent!  Dedicated to seeking charity through manipulating people with lies, Kim appears to have accepted that the relationship with me is over.

I don’t regret having helped Kim.  He was the first Cambodian person I engaged with in this way and he taught me many things.  That donors can be exploited is a very common theme in my world, and often one which justifies not helping when we can, because perhaps we’ll be fleeced.  In all of my extreme privilege, I will never be fleeced in the ways that Kim has been throughout his most unfortunate life.  As Mum said to me when his behaviour first came to light, “you do have to wonder what  your priorities would be if you were him – telling the truth or ensuring your family had enough to eat?”.  There is no end to the complexity of human nature, and even more so when we are forced into lives of depravity.

Trying To Be A Noisy Neighbour

poverty and privilege silent neighbours

Mornings in Kampong Cham town and across Cambodia come alive the moment the first ray of sunlight blazes it’s long sharp streak through the fading night skies.  The first market sellers start to appear on their motos piled high with what would, in my world, be truckloads of produce.  When I appear a few hours later, the streets are humming and I have never lost the sense of fascination I feel with sights that the locals consider “normal”.

Yesterday I made the maddest dash I’ve ever made, 30km to Paula’s house on the back of a motorbike, to get her signature on what was  hopefully the final of many forms needed to make our pending journey possible.  En route we pulled over so I could answer my telephone.  As a herd of cows sauntered past, motos weaving around and through them honking their horns in warning, I explained to the airline representative that I understood the urgency and was onto it.

A yellow pool of slush and water has settled around the base of their house, with a long wooden plank poised as a bridge from solid ground to the first dry step.  After an excitement-filled conversation about meeting at the airport in a few days, signed form in hand, I crossed the bridge towards the moto and stood still to take this photograph.  The moment obliged dozens of small red ants to attack me from toes to ankles.

IMG_7147 blurred

Both Paula’s and Samantha’s families have a minivan booked each, to transport their respective hordes to the airport for what I expect may be an overwhelming send-off .  I will be there, foreign, alone and unloved, which is sure to elicit plenty of sympathy from those sending us off!  I am mostly looking forward to the excitement of traveling with three Cambodians who never dreamed of going in an aeroplane before.  My spare moments are spent trying to anticipate how best to prepare them for their rich world experience, plus practising my poker face.  I expect to be the reference point for three of them during turbulence so straight faced and calm will be the only expression I share.

This morning after smothering tiger balm over my itchy feet, I hit the road on my bicycle to do a few chores.  When the ATM thought too long about my requested withdrawal before changing it’s mind, I immediately suspected the money which had not been dispensed had probably made it’s way out of my bank account.  Walking into the bank on the first of any month – public servant pay day – is to be avoided whenever possible.  Unless you’re a foreigner.   I was asked to take a seat at the counter, immediately ahead of the crowds in the seated queue behind me.  Conversing in English, a phone call was made and moments later I was informed that the withdrawal would be reversed by tomorrow.  I cycled over the road to another ATM and made the withdrawal I needed.

Served in my native tongue, ahead of everyone else, without concern for the missing money because I have enough in the bank, in a country where only 3% of the population even have a bank account, I cycled through the market contemplating.  My Cambodian days cause constant inner turmoil.  My own freedoms and privileges, being treated “like a King”, and then witnessing such extreme hardships in the exact same moment, is the most confronting experience.  Even having this exposure to “the other world” gives me a privilege that others, safe in comfort zones, miss out on.  I deserve no more than the next person, yet I have immeasurably more than most who share my world and I know this through personal observation, not from statistics, other peoples’ accounts, photographs or videos.  Until very recently I had no real clue that this was the case despite “knowing” it in theory.

Inner turmoil is described as “the mind’s way of destroying the perception of what you are”.  Only now, in middle age, have I learned that on a global scale I am far more entitled and powerful than I ever had a clue of being.  My previously held self perception of being a “global average” has turned on it’s head.  The only way to respond to this revelation is to use my power and privilege to the benefit of others.  This also seems to have become the only way I feel I can personally benefit any further from my over-entitled life.  I seem to have transcended previously held aspirations for material possessions and international travel, in favour of helping others.  It doesn’t make me anything but the same selfish person I’ve always been – my aspirations have simply changed.

Any praise for helping others belongs fairly and squarely to those around me, who face their own hardships yet help others, often with great personal sacrifice.  Among so many, “Rav”, my friend in Siem Reap, is a fine example of this.  A young man with a wife and two small children, he was born just after Khmer Rouge were ousted by the Vietnamese and grew up in troubled times.  He doesn’t speak about himself much but I know life has been a constant challenge.  While I was jumping on trampolines, going to swimming club and boarding school, he was simultaneously fishing in rice fields for the family dinner and often going hungry.  When I arranged to help “Kim”, the landmine victim who I support with a small amount each month, he brought Rav with him to assist with translation on our first encounter.  On that occasion I purchased a sewing machine for Kim’s wife, which led to the placement of a photograph of myself and my mother in a frame on the wall of their tiny home, above the old machine!

As so often happens in this country, upon meeting Rav I immediately warmed to his quiet, unassuming, helpful character and we have remained in touch ever since.  Despite it becoming apparent over almost two years, that he lives an impoverished existence himself, he has only ever assisted me in my attempts to support Kim, often saying “at least I have an ability to work but Kim has no hands and no leg, his economic is much worse than mine”.  Most recently I learned that he sold his telephone – one of their only assets – to pay a hospital bill after one of his sons became unwell.

Before leaving Cambodia I really wanted to help him in some way.  Ways which are small to me, can be significant here and I knew he wanted to send his sons to English school but it was unaffordable.  Aware of his pride, I broached the subject vaguely and suggested he talk with his wife about my offer to sponsor this.  Some days later they accepted the offer and last week I arranged to visit Siem Reap for the final time this year.  Courtesy of the nearby temples of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is an incongruous place.  Rich with tourists and the money they bring, and poor with impoverished beggars and low paid workers, attracted by the pull of a possible income.  Despite being the richest town in Cambodia, the province of Siem Reap is one of the poorest, showing that the spoils are not distributed.  Rav lives in a small bedroom, a kitchen sink with running water on the back wall and a bathroom walled off in a corner.  No bigger than my bedroom, this room with one double bed houses six people – Rav and his wife, their two sons and two teenage girls from a remote village whose family are facing starvation.

Siem Reap’s economy supports English schools of a much higher calibre than the dirt-floor basement areas of private homes which make up the majority of English schools in the country.  Rav picked me up and we met his wife, two boys and one of the teens, before heading to an English school of my choosing, found on the internet.  Unlike most schools which are run by a single Khmer teacher, often as a supplement to their public school employment, the children will be exposed to a combination of salaried native English speakers and Khmer teachers.  They will also receive half an hour per day of Chinese language lessons.

The young couple were visibly surprised by the well resourced classrooms, library and play areas.  Their small boys ran excitedly between one room and the next, full of wonder at the toys, books and colour.  The fees are beyond their budget but well within mine, so I agreed to sponsor them.  Rav taught himself English by talking to tourists and was able to complete the enrolment forms independently, in a shakey but legible English – far more astonishing to me than the fancy school!  The boys started on Monday and Rav has called me a number of times to express their joint astonishment that their children are attending a school where the other students all come from families who own cars!  “Our economic is not changed but my children’s luck is very changed now and I think they can have a good life”.

The oldest teenage girl staying with them, 16yo, has found work at a nearby soup stall.  Her 14yo sister wants to stay in school but Rav was told it would cost money to transfer her enrolment from the village government school, to their local school.  I asked him to find out about this so I could help if possible.  After speaking to the teacher he rang to let me know “the teacher will do it for two boxes of beer”.  So I am stocking a village teacher with two boxes of beer!  Ironic given that a 28yo man in the same village died yesterday from “stomach bleeding because he drank too much rice wine”.

The school enrolment created a new problem and Rav said he would sell his wife’s sugar cane juicer to get the deposit for a loan so that they could purchase a motorbike.  Their only vehicle is his tuk tuk which he needs to transport customers in order to make their only survivable, albeit unreliable income, except the sugar cane juicer when there are enough tourists to warrant setting up a stall.  The thought of selling another asset sent my first world brain reeling (yet again) and I asked him to put the idea on hold until I could think about it for a while.  That night I started an online crowdfunder and advertised it to friends and family.  In only three days we raised enough for them to buy a near-new, excellent condition motorbike!  His wife can now transport the children while Rav works.  Life just got a whole lot easier for one small family who deserve an ounce of luck, courtesy of people in France, US, England, Australia and New Zealand.  I do get a thrill connecting these two worlds – thanks everyone, from an overwhelmed Rav in Siem Reap!

The Eyes came to town yesterday because they were both complaining of red, sore eyes.  When they called and described their symptoms to Chom I felt slightly mortified that I had refused to pay for post-operative antibiotics on the grounds that the surgery was falsely advertised as “free of charge to patients”, while costing hundreds of dollars.  However, when they turned up yesterday all was not quite as it had been described.  We spent a morning at the local Ophthalmology Department to be informed these were normal post-operative symptoms.  A prescription for eyedrops and paracetamol was given.  We went to the market to pick up the medications and they informed me along the way that they needed new shoes.  So a trip to the shoe stall was included in our tripping-about, which Chom suggested may have been the main reason for their “symptoms”!  Just when I think I’ve completed my final Cambodian project, something else crops up.  But it seems that the remaining project now, is to cram my belongings into a case and meet my travel companions at Phnom Penh Airport for two weeks hanging out in North America.

Angkor Athletes and Apsara Angels

Angkor Wat is the biggest of many historic Khmer temples situated near the tourist resort town of Siem Reap in Cambodia.  It is the largest religious monument in the world and has been ranked as one of the Seven man made Wonders of the World.  Khmer civilisation came into it’s own and thrived here for centuries through the Middle Ages.  Yesterday the inaugural International Angkor Empire Marathon was held, with a starting point at the entrance gate into Angkor Wat Temple and a course encircling the World Heritage listed site, including through the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom and past many other temples.  It was an exciting event and registration fees will be divided between a number of local hospitals and charities.

There are currently eight expatriates living and working together with MSF-France in Kampong Cham, a diverse but well-matched group of people from all over the world who socialise and work as a happy (and incredibly lucky) team.  We hired a driver and mini van for the weekend and on Friday afternoon headed off with stocks of wine and snacks for the five hour journey to Siem Reap, for a weekend together.

Despite a fun journey along rural roads with many interesting sights, luxurious boutique hotel accommodation and decent tourist-friendly shopping and restaurants in Siem Reap, where I now know people who I enjoy catching up with, the highlight of my weekend was definitely the 0430am start four of us made yesterday morning. We reached Angkor Wat in time to watch the sun slowly rise behind the famous ancient temple spires before cheering on the race starters for the 21km half marathon at 6am, followed by the 10km competitors at 0610am, then lining up for my own 3km fun run take off at 0620am.

On previous trips to Siem Reap I’ve mentioned Rav, the affable young tuk-tuk driver who translates for me with the landmine victim whose family I support.  We visited them on Saturday for our usual encounter at their little single room accommodation sleeping a family of four and serving as Mum’s workplace with the sewing machine set up in one corner.  Yesterday at 0500am Rav was waiting as arranged and runners were already on the unlit road outside our hotel, 5km into the 42km full marathon which had started half an hour prior in the dark, their silhouettes silently pounding the road as policemen lined the streets to mark their route.  We packed into the tuk-tuk, the two serious competitors who were about to run 21km and 10km respectively, full of nerves and excitement.  The tuk-tuk made it’s way out into the road, crossing in front of runners in the usual Cambodian style of casual but polite rule-free road-sharing which I have become awkwardly familiar with and which makes me worry for my return to Australia where road rules and road rage will be unfamiliar and alarming!

Sunrise at the temple was a spectacular array of slowly-evolving colours, with a DJ on stage spurring the crowds, calling for competitors to make their way to the start line, appealing for cheers according to the nationalities he was naming randomly, playing loud beat music and rousing applause for the competitors at each take-off.  Our Slovakian colleague left first in the half marathon, full of nerves but no doubt stimulated by the adrenaline rush the crowd and atmosphere generated.  Ten minutes later our Australian colleague took off in a similar rush of excitement for the 10km race, followed ten minutes later by myself and our American colleague for the 3km fun run.  Unlike my American friend who planned a stroll, I was determined to run the distance despite my similarly inappropriate attire and utter lack of athletic desires or talents.  I started at a slow pace which I correctly thought I could maintain for the duration.  Surrounded by a mixed and happy crowd of joggers and walkers, and inspired by the beautiful tree-lined route in such a magical site, I mused about the historic events preceding my own footprints on this patch of land over many centuries as I ran to the beat of the tunes on my newly-created “Angkor Marathon” playlist.  Plenty of interested local people lined the route going about their usual daily business of selling to or cleaning up after tourists, with lots of staring, waving and smiling as I plodded past, helping me to maintain my pace so that within 20 minutes I had shuffled my way back to the finish line, feeling quite accomplished.  After all, I can now say that “I ran in the inaugural Angkor Empire Marathon” – with the subtle distinction of adding the word “in” to my sentence making all the difference to the truth of my statement!

Just as I was reaching the finish line a very fast and fit male runner strode past me, giving me the extremely false impression of competing in a serious race – the difference being that I shuffled across a white chalk line in one direction as he veered the bend and bounced energetically underneath the red banners of the serious finish line.  Rav found me a few moments later and we stood along the edges cheering in the approaching serious competitors.  Green cardboard squares attached to plastic ice cream sticks were being handed out and we waved these at ourselves to cool down in between using them to cheer on the athletes.  Our walking MSFer was next over the line, strolling casually along in her thongs!  About twenty minutes later Bea appeared, crossing the 10km finish line in good time with a beaming smile.  About an hour later our Slovakian 21kmer strode in looking like she’d just taken a walk in the park!  The serious runners received a medal while the 3kmers received a certificate with space on it to complete our names and finish times.  Along with the green cardboard fans and after taking some photos for evidence that we did get a finishing certificate, Rav’s children inherited these.

After cooling off, rehydrating and soaking up some of the race atmosphere Rav pulled in alongside Angkor Wat’s moat and we piled in again for the return journey to the hotel for breakfast, a shower and a much-deserved rest.  Rav parked himself across the road from the hotel and waited, the standard pastime of thousands of tuk-tuk drivers throughout Asia!  A few hours later we gave him some more custom, heading into town and then to visit the two year old I spent time with in April whose tracheostomy has been removed and is healing well, before returning to town for lunch while Rav sat patiently once more in the back of his own tuk-tuk.  After lunch I needed to stop at the bank so we parked and I jumped out and ran into the ATM.   Stuffing my money into my purse I turned around to the sight of my three housemates madly fanning themselves in unison in the back of a parked tuk-tuk with three green cardboard fans which Rav had obviously retrieved from under the seat amidst complaints of “many sweats” in the still and steamy air.  It was a quintessentially Asian-hilarious sight.

This morning I arrived at work and negotiated the discharge of a 64yo patient who is ready to return home where she has her own business which she created with $100 borrowed from a neighbour.  She has been hospitalised for a month now and her business and the repayments have all been on hold.  When I told a friend in Australia her story, which involves existing as subsistence farmers in a home made out of bamboo and banana leaves, with malnourished children in the house including a 7 month old who weighs 4kg, they sent me $100 to pay off the loan.  Today with my translator back at work after two weeks away, I was able to communicate this news and give her the money to pay off her debt.  She listened to my translator explain my possession of $100 intended for her, and nodded quietly before announcing that she was very excited to finally be going home.  We returned a few moments later with the money in an envelope.  She appeared from the bathroom with a krama wrapped sarong-like around her chest.  She slowly and demurely changed in front of us, into a white laced pyjama-like top before calling her husband in from the undercover pathway outside where he had been chatting with some other patients.  He then changed into a pair of black pyjamas and sat next to her.  I held the envelope as Win explained that they should be discreet about it as it was not possible to do this for the other patients.  They agreed quietly to this and I placed the envelope on her wooden bed base.  Via Win I then asked for a photograph to send to the donor and they agreed.  The envelope sat on the bed untouched, and so I sat down on top of it to have my photograph taken with them.  Without any verbal recognition of the money, the patient placed her hands on my arm and stroked it repeatedly, saying I had beautiful skin, and that I looked healthy.  I looked at Win, suspicious that he had substituted “healthy” for “fat”.  Reading my mind he said “she means that you are very healthy, it is a very positive thing in Cambodia”!  Against her 40kg frame which knows both hunger and tuberculosis intimately I do look gigantic, so I can accept this “compliment” without too much torment!  We did argue back and forth a bit as she said she wished she had my “health” and I replied in jest that I wished I had her slim figure, eliciting a more forceful “but I really wish I was healthy like you”.  I let her win the battle, realising that my luck at birth means I already won the war.

Making the most of my translator we then cycled to Shackville (as I have dubbed it) to visit the mother of the 6yo amputee boy.  I met her this morning on my way to work and we conversed as we always do – with much laughter and little understanding of what each other is saying, so I told her I would return “with Khmer” (the only way I know how to say “with my translator”).  Her son came to the Night Market with us a few Sundays ago, when we took the orphans to a Childrens’ Fair event.  I had managed to communicate to her earlier that day, my request that he join us at the Fair and she had conveyed her understanding and consent.  When I returned that afternoon to collect him as arranged, he very slowly put his prosthesis on, looking nervous and slightly confused the whole time.  With his growing bone protruding through the skin of his stump, the prosthesis is uncomfortable and he is only wearing it at the moment for aesthetic reasons.  I carried him to my bike and put him on the carrier, cycling away with a very anxious boy watching his mother disappear into the distance behind us.

When we arrived at the Fair his nerves slowly dissipated as he played with the other 6yo in our group, hopping along behind the other children or asking the older ones to carry him.  Apsara dancers and children juggling featured at the fundraising event and we bought the children an ice cream and some fried noodles to share.  After two hours he announced that he was ready to go home (via the Cambodian Orphanage Director who was with us).  So I picked him up and carried him home as he nodded off in my arms.  When we arrived at Shackville he opened his eyes and suddenly became very animated, shouting out to his mother, pointing towards the Night Market excitedly and talking at high speed.  His gut busting enthusiasm told me without understanding a word, that he had enjoyed the excursion.

Today thanks to Win, his mother was finally able to relay his version of events.  He told her that he ate a lot of different foods and he “even saw many angels”!  It took me a while to process what he could possibly be speaking about.  The “lot of different foods” were an ice cream and a small plate of fried noodles divided as a snack between three children.  The angels were Apsara performers!  He is staying with his grandparents at their village seven kilometres from here because Mum has to work and she doesn’t have enough money to feed him, which is why he was crying the last time I saw him.  I cycled by and waved out, aware that he was in Mum’s arms crying but because I was late for work, didn’t stop.   Mum speaks to him everyday on the telephone and in every conversation he asks “did My Barang come to look for me today?” and tells her “Mum, please don’t abandon me”, as his way of pleading to return to Shackville!  The kid is a heart breaker!

These are his angels performing for him!
Childrens Fair Night Market 9 Aug 036a

Tuk Tuk, Madame?

This has probably become the most often quoted proposition of my life, courtesy of both the fact that I rarely get propositioned, as well as the flood of multi-lingual tuk tuk drivers vying for foreign custom in Siem Reap.  Rav was waiting for me this afternoon in a sea of tuk tuks calling to me hopefully, as I gave the customary wave of a waist-height hand to indicate no, then said “no because my friend is waiting for me”.  A jocular driver replied with a teasing and high pitched question as Rav put his helmet on and I climbed into the carriage, “He is your friend?!”.  Amused at his sense of the ridiculous I replied “Tya” laughingly.  There’s nothing like winning over customers with a good dose of humour.

We drove into Pub St and I was about to text Kim when he appeared from over the road, carrying his basket of books.  He got in the carriage with me and we drove over to his small rented room.  As we pulled in his wife was sitting at her sewing machine in the open shuttered, barred front window space.  Their youngest daughter spoke to me in clear English “Hello, how are you?” as both girls smiled shyly at me from the sides of their mother.  We sat on the floor and she spoke to the girls, one of whom jumped up and, bowing low as she walked through the circle, disappeared for a few minutes.  She returned with a coconut speared in the centre top with a straw in place and sliced flat on the bottom, placing it like a large cup on the floor before me.  Bottles of water were pulled out of the plastic eskie beside the only bed and given to each of the adults.  I looked on the wall ahead of me to the unexpected sight of a typed piece of paper taped above the sewing machines which read “Donations by Madame Helen from Australia”!

I asked how the sewing venture was going and his wife held up a small girls’ dress, explaining via Rav’s translation that the dressmaker employing her had brought it to the house this morning and asked her to replicate it with the supplied material.  I asked how much she would earn making these elastic-chested sundresses and was told that she would be given 1/3 of the cost, which comes to 500 riel.  That is US12c.  Twelve cents per completed dress.  Cambodia continues to hurl surprises at me on a daily basis.

We sat talking casually for perhaps half an hour, before leaving the family behind and heading back to the tourist-centred Old Market where Rav left me for a few hours of cruising the shops and reading my book under a ceiling fan in a cafe.  As I left the cafe, a young woman in rags carrying a baby drinking milk from a bottle came my way and followed me briefly, asking for assistance with “I want to get milk for my baby”.  I said sorry and kept walking.  Then I thought better of it and walked back to find her but she had disappeared up one of the alleyways.  Why is a young poor woman using bottled milk and not breastfeeding, I wonder?  Where do they sleep and how does she survive day-in, day-out?  What lies ahead for her baby and for her?

At the next corner a hand propelled bicycle-trolley contraption appeared with a walled carriage upon which a message was painted in both French and English about not wanting to beg, then going on to describe in some way, his need.  I did not get a clear picture of the driver’s disability from within his carriage, but it seemed similar to the young man I’d seen earlier, walking along on his hands, with small feet protruding from each stumped thigh – the look of a thalidomide disability.  Was thalidomide ever used in Cambodia?  It is more likely that these are victims of Agent Orange, a chemical used indiscriminately by the American military during the Vietnam War.   The Ho Chi Minh Trail, a thickly forested series of jungle pathways extending from North Vietnam, through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam, was used by the Vietcong to transport supplies and troops.  America smothered the region with aerial sprays of Agent Orange (named for the orange stripe on the drums it was carried in), to denude the jungle canopies and give their warplanes visibility of human movement.  The chemical breaks down into dioxin, a poison which has been linked to many human diseases and birth defects.  Decades later, children continue to be born in the areas affected, with serious birth defects.  The Vietnames Red Cross claim that a million children in Vietnam alone are living with physical deformities and mental disorders caused by Agent Orange.

The impact of Agent Orange on Cambodia’s people is largely unknown, but the following brief explanation is interesting, as much for the insight into the power differential between countries as for the questionably deviant morals of America’s National Security Advisor during the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger:
Unlike Laos, Cambodia was not systematically sprayed.  There was likely some mist drift into Cambodia as areas close to the border in Vietnam were sprayed.  The one recorded direct spraying of herbicides in Cambodia took place from April 18–May 2, 1969, when 173,000 acres of French and Cambodian rubber plantations in Kampong Cham Province in Cambodia were sprayed. 24,000 of these acres were seriously damaged.   The spraying took place at night and it was unclear who carried out the spraying, but it was not believed to be by the US Air Force.  Evidence points to CIA and Air America aircraft. In 1969, the Cambodian government filed a claim for $12.2 million in damages.  Though we never admitted we were responsible, we made plans to pay the claim to promote “broader interests.”  Henry Kissinger, at the time the National Security Advisor, attempted to delay paying the claim until FY1972, writing “Every effort should be made to avoid the necessity for a special budgetary request to provide funds to pay this claim.”

While talking with Rav and Kim earlier, I learned that while Kim’s home is a little way out of town, making transport an issue for his work looking for sales in the central tourist area, it is peaceful for his family situation.  Others “like him” (disabled), said Rav, live closer to town but they drink alcohol and it’s noisy and not so safe.  Kim says that his long driveway, which appears to house at least eight other families in similar small adjoining rooms of two long buildings, is safe and quiet, with a landlord who does not accept disruptive tenants and that this is important for his family life.  His girls are neatly presented, clean and pretty, just as most impoverished people here are – a tribute to their parents’ love and responsibility despite such difficult circumstances.  Clearly, as with the disadvantaged communities I have worked with in Australia, not everyone copes as well with their difficulties as Kim, with alcohol and hopelessness affecting at least some of the beggars who Rav says “come from other places because of the tourists”.

Perhaps the appeal of Siem Reap is it’s parallels with Central Australia?  The absurd blend of humour with hardship, affable yet penniless characters, international tourists alongside local vagrants and the markets of art, craft and entertainment targeting visitors with money.

Magical Realism

We woke today to news of the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Columbia’s President has described him as the “greatest Colombian of all time”.  This is surely thanks to his ageless and captivating writing, celebrated by millions of ordinary readers and the Nobel Academy alike.  His prose has been described as Magical Realism, which combines reality with fantasy such that it becomes difficult to differentiate in the plot, where the two merge.

In some ways I think that the difference between reality and fantasy always merges somewhere in all of our minds.  An anonymous blog reader sent me a message about a year ago now, accusing me of living in a fantasy world and lying about some of my experiences.  How they possibly knew this I have no clue, but I am happy to appreciate that my reality is never going to match others’.  Our memories are formed by repeatedly processing sensory perceptions of an event until it becomes embedded as a memory.  With each repeat encoding our imperfect brains misremember small to major details.  This is why no group of people will ever remember the same event in the exact same way.  It is also, put very simply, how false memories can be formed, as well as very likely being connected to phenomena such as Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD).  Ultimately I guess, it is also why we all have differing perspectives on life – because we form and develop opinions and attitudes based on what we learn over time and none of us share the exact same experiences or biological make-up (responsible for the way we process things).

With this in mind, I marvel at the efforts that people in a place like Cambodia will go to, for what seems to people from a place like Australia, as paltry amounts of money.  My Cambodian per diem of $390 per month, at almost $100 per week, is by no means small in Cambodian terms, where the average income is approximately $2 per day and I can live well with just myself to support and many of my expenses (eg rent) covered.

My time in Siem Reap has been relaxing and mostly spent behind the rendered brick wall of my paradise-like, balcony-encircled poolside hotel with it’s high timber ceilings, timber floors, tropical gardens and lavish poolside restaurant.  Over the wall from me is a large Pagoda where children from poor families are robed as monks, serving the Buddhist clergy in exchange for food and education which would be otherwise unavailable to them.  Down the road a short way, hammocks are slung between every tree, housing obviously homeless men, women and children who set up stalls near their beds to sell coconuts, cardboard and various other wares for a tiny price.  Tuk tuks transporting wealthy foreigners putter past them many times per day, apparently taking little notice of the poverty playing out before us, perhaps because it is such a foreign concept that we really don’t understand or appreciate it’s significance to the people living it daily.

My tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, Rav, a young man with a wife and small children, has been with me whenever I leave the hotel compound.  This afternoon we visited Kim’s young family, after which I decided to sit at an al-fresco restaurant in town for a few hours, to soak in some atmosphere and sip lemon juice while reading my book.  Rav knew he had another $5 due for the day (I had paid him half already) and he relaxed in the cab of his tuk tuk patiently waiting for me, for this reason.  Coming from a country where the average wage is $35/hour, over two hours for $5 seems somehow …. corrupt?

But corruption is a consistent theme in Cambodia.  By no means the only, nor the first, nor the most recent example of the way Cambodians have been and continue to be used and abused by their own leaders, but also leaders of the world employed to improve their lot, is the presence of the multi-national United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).  In the 18 months from March 1992 until September 1993, the presence of UNTAC in Cambodia is credited with bringing six thousand foreigners into the previously completely-isolated (and highly traumatised and decimated) country from places as far-flung as Hungary, Uruguay, Canada, the Ivory Coast, Australia, and pretty much everywhere in between.  UNTAC civilians, in addition to their regular salaries, received a per diem of $130 per day.  The average income in Cambodia at that time, with widespread malnutrition and poverty affecting swathes of the population, was approximately $130 per annum!  Not only did UNTAC fail in it’s billion-dollar mission to restore peace and security to a country being held captive by their own self-serving political and symbolic leaders.  They also boosted prostitution and are credited with spreading Human Immuno-deficiency Virus through a country previously unaffected by the epidemic, which rose to a prevalence of 2% in 1998, before steadily declining to a prevalence of approximately 0.2% in 2012.  (See

Being born into this circumstance of extreme violation, I guess Rav is used to being on the receiving end of all kinds and levels of corruption, be it specifically due to individuals, or of a more systematic nature.  He is one of the luckier young drivers I have met, in that he is very accepting of the inequity surrounding him in this city of extreme disparity.  Some drivers I have encountered have been full of anxiety and despair, expressions I have full empathy for given the history and damage that has become a part of the identity of Cambodia.   Rav is casually but politely grateful for the comparatively reasonable amounts I am willing to pay him and happy to relax and wait while I “do my thing”.  In return, I get to have my very own driver / guide / translator who will chauffeur me around in a manner to which I have become well accustomed during my time of living well in Cambodia.  As a general rule, paying more than market value for such things as tuk tuk rides is advised against, as it drives the market value up, disadvantaging the majority of locals who cannot afford to pay more.  This happened in an extreme way during UNTAC’s time in Cambodia, when the highly paid international visitors inflated prices to ridiculous levels which were way beyond what the already-struggling general population could afford.  It is common for bartering to take place between wealthy foreigners and poor locals, over what are actually small amounts to the customer, but amounts that can make a difference to those serving them, who always seem acutely aware of the disparity.  There is a fine line between being generous to someone providing you an otherwise cheap service, and causing harm to the overall economy in an already destitute environment.

If I had a snippet of Garcia Marquez’ skill, I could translate this lifestyle into a story of magical realism, which is certainly a sensation that Cambodia conjures with it’s high pinnacles of affluence and depths of hardship.  Alas, the best I can do, is an unremarkable journalistic summary of my personal perceptions.